Technology with attitude

Finnish Line

3

Robert G. Kaiser gets thinky in Helsinki and finds much to admire in Finland.

Finland looks even more like the successful alternative-America than does Canada. Canada has been unfairly dragooned into that job by people too uncreative to study any nation they can’t get to by car, or people in such haste to beat up on the U.S. that they grabbed the first country that wandered in off the street.

Finns have one of the world’s most generous systems of state-funded educational, medical and welfare services, from pregnancy to the end of life. They pay nothing for education at any level, including medical school or law school. Their medical care, which contributes to an infant mortality rate that is half of ours and a life expectancy greater than ours, costs relatively little. (Finns devote 7 percent of gross domestic product to health care; we spend 15 percent.) Finnish senior citizens are well cared for. Unemployment benefits are good and last, in one form or another, indefinitely.

Nice! As it turns out, though, such systems tend to evolve, and work best, in a certain kind of country. That country tends to look like Finland: populated by people who are very much the same, with similar cultures, backgrounds, and assumptions about things.

But the United States could not simply turn itself into another Finland. Too much of Finnish reality depends on uniquely Finnish circumstances. Finland is as big as two Missouris, but with just 5.2 million residents — fewer than metropolitan Washington. It is ethnically and religiously homogeneous. A strong Lutheran work ethic, combined with a powerful sense of probity, dominates the society. Homogeneity has led to consensus: Every significant Finnish political party supports the welfare state and, broadly speaking, the high taxation that makes it possible. And Finns have extraordinary confidence in their political class and public officials. Corruption is extremely rare.

… I found Finnish society beguiling on many levels, but in the end concluded that it could not serve as a blueprint for the United States. National differences matter. The Finns are special and so are we. Ours is a society driven by money, blessed by huge private philanthropy, cursed by endemic corruption and saddled with deep mistrust of government and other public institutions. Finns have none of those attributes.

Nor do they tune in to American individualism. Groupthink seems to be fine with most Finns; conformity is the norm, risk-taking is avoided — a problem now, when entrepreneurs are so needed. I was bothered by a sense of entitlement among many Finns, especially younger people.

Diversity is good. We might as well keep saying that, because as Americans we are and always have been stuck with diversity, whether we wanted it or not. At the most basic level, we all are here because we or our ancestors chose to get away from someplace else. But beyond that, you can’t find much else that unites us. And even that’s not true with regard to many African-Americans.

How curious, though, if the one modern liberal shibboleth of “diversity” was the snare that tripped up the other one, the benevolent welfare state. And what does the loss of homogeneity bode for nations like Sweden and the Netherlands, where the welfare system seems like a vulnerable organ where the cancers of aggressive and unassimilated minority ideologues fester?

My questions, not Kaiser’s. He does think we could learn certain things from the Finns. Among them, chief among them, is formulas for fixing the American school system. Any help there would be greatly appreciated. Another is the confidence that we can tackle big social problems and change the course of national drift. I thought that used to be part of what Americans thought about themselves.